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Licit Liturgical Revision for the Future

Editor’s note: This post was updated on Nov. 13, 2018. 

By Matthew Olver

I wrote last week about the meaning of Resolution A068. Another very important constitutional change passed by General Convention will only come into effect if the next General Convention concurs: an addition has been proposed for section (c) to Article X of the Constitution, which deals with the authority of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This change is critical because it goes hand in glove with the bishops’ revised version of A068 and makes possible what was proposed there.

It is important to remember that strict limitations are in place for revising or replacing the prayer book or parts thereof. Article X of the Constitution describes the steps that must be taken in order to alter or add to the prayer book:

First, the resolution must be presented at a regular meeting of General Convention. If that General Convention passes it, the resolution is sent to the secretary of every diocesan convention within six months. This is to ensure that everyone is completely clear about the changes and so they can be discussed during the interim at the diocesan level.

Second, at the next regular meeting of General Convention (three years later), the same revision must be adopted “by a majority of all Bishops … of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a vote by orders in the House of Deputies.”

However, there are two categories of revisions that only require a majority vote of the House of Bishops and a vote by orders in the House of Deputies at one convention (not at two subsequent conventions):

1. “the Table of Lessons and all Tables and Rubrics relating to the Psalms.”

2. The authorization “for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.”

The first type of revision already took place in 2006, when the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary to replace what the 1979 book simply calls “The Lectionary,” which provides three lessons and a psalm for use at the Eucharist on all Sundays and Holy Days (pp. 888-931 in the original edition of the 1979 prayer book).

What rites have been authorized?

However, in the past General Convention has authorized alternatives to rites or parts of rites in the 1979 book, such as parts of Enriching our Worship, particularly volume 1, and I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing, the liturgical resources for same-sex unions and marriages. But, these were not proposed as trial rites to be tested for the purpose of later revising the prayer book until resolution 2015-A054, when “The Witness and Blessing of a Marriage” and “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage 2” were authorized for trial use pursuant to Article X of the Constitution and to canon II.3.6, and then for all of the rites in I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing in 2018-A086 and 2018-B012. Rather, they functioned like the Book of Alternative Services in the Anglican Church of Canada (where the 1962 Book of Common Prayer remains the authoritative book) or Common Worship in the Church of England (where the 1662 Book of Common Prayer remains authoritative).

But those liturgies were different than the alternative service books of provinces such as Canada and England in two important ways.

First, these American rites that were alternatives to portions of the authorized prayer book could only be used within a particular diocese with the permission of the diocesan bishop. The alternative rites in these other churches are subject to no such limitations, which is an enormous difference.

Second, as a pre-Convention post by the SCLM explained, “there is no other constitutional or canonical provision explicitly authorizing General Convention to approve alternate forms for any of the liturgies or rites in the BCP.”

The SCLM members continue: “In the current triennium, we discovered that the church has been working without a canonical net.” The Constitution and Canons make no allowance for “the kind of latitude the church has taken for granted for generations when it comes to liturgical materials.”

The history of the canonical status of the inclusive and expansive language rites is fascinating. The 1985 resolution A095 called for the creation of “inclusive language texts for the regular worship of the Church … to be proposed for trial use at the next meeting of the General Convention,” citing both Article X and Canon II.3.5(a). Liturgical Texts for Evaluation was drafted by the Standing Liturgical Commission but was not authorized by the General Convention. Instead, it was “authorized by the Standing Liturgical Commission for use in worship in selected evaluation centers from September 20 through October 14, 1987” (LTE, p. 1).

Then, in 1988, the Convention authorized Supplemental Liturgical Texts with resolution A103. However, they are not authorized as a trial use, in part because of the first resolve clause of the resolution: to “study, develop, and evaluate supplemental inclusive language liturgical texts … in consultation with the House of Bishops Theology Committee.” The explanation for the authorization is “for the sake of perfecting draft rites” (emphasis added), a phrase which does not appear in the Constitution and Canons. The same language was used, without any reference to trial rites, in resolution 1994-A068, which authorized Supplemental Liturgical Materials. The last collection of supplemental texts authorized before those in 2018 is Enriching our Worship, authorized by resolution 1997-A075. The resolution authorized changes to SLMand directed that they be published under the title Enriching our Worship. Missing from this resolution, however, is any reference to the constitution language of “trial rite” or even the phrase “draft rites” from the two previous resolutions.

The 1991 Convention was the first to attempt to revise the Constitution in order to provide legal standing for rites that are not proposed for inclusion in a revised prayer book. The change would have added a third exception to the requirement that two successive conventions approve any revision to the Prayer Book: to “[p]rovide for limited use for other forms of worship on an experimental basis for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide” (1991-A121). The second reading (1994-A016) passed the House of Bishops but failed in the House of Deputies (see Journal of the General Convention, 1994, 78-9).

In 1997, the same year that EOW1 was authorized, the convention passed a resolution (C021) directing “the Standing Liturgical Commission and the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons to submit to the 73rd General Convention for first reading an amendment to the Constitution of this Church to add to Article X an authorization for preparation and use of additional liturgical materials.” As requested, such an amendment was put forward (2000-A132) and in language that was very similar to 1991-A121. But, like before, the first reading passed while the second reading (2003-A108) was passed by the House of Bishops and defeated in the House of Deputies (see Journal of the General Convention, 2003, pp. 634-35, 642).

The SCLM attempted to address this in 2015 with a revision of Article X of the Constitution, but the resolution failed in the House of Deputies (why it failed is not totally clear; it may well have been the deputies were confused about what problem the resolution intended to solve). Here is how the SCLM explains the need to address the situation:

On the surface, the work of creating beautiful, meaningful liturgy may seem to be all about the poetic. Liturgists are like poets to the degree that we attempt to give a shape, in language, to all of our inchoate experiences of God. But there are also a lot of nuts and bolts to the work of crafting liturgy, and not just rules around grammar or rhetorical structure. The SCLM has found that, at the bottom of our toolbox, one of the most powerful tools we must pay attention to are the Constitution and Canons of the Church – vessels that hold the order of the church for the sake of our shared life.

This is rather remarkable. In other words, the SCLM is saying, “We’ve been living in clear violation of our canonical boundaries for generations.” I think the strangest part of this paragraph is the statement that the SCLM has discovered the tool called the Constitution and Canons sitting at the bottom of the toolbox. How this got past countless conventions and smart people who know their canons is beyond me. But there it is.

The SCLM returned to this problem at the recent convention with a double proposal. The first was another attempt to revise Article X in similar language to 2015 (resolution A063). The proposal was to add a third category to the two already outlined in Article X that outline exceptions to the rule that convention cannot revise or add to the prayer book at two successive regular meetings:


Resolution 2015-A066 Resolution 2018-A063
Provide for use of other forms for the renewal and enrichment of the common worship of this Church for such periods of time and upon such terms and conditions as the General Convention may provide. Authorize for use throughout this Church, as provided by Canon, alternative and additional liturgies to supplement those provided in the Book of Common Prayer.



The second part of the 2015 resolution has been divided into a separate resolution (A062) that seeks to revise Canon II.3.6-9. Specifically, the resolution seeks to add a provision to the section that describes the process for revising the prayer book:

Sec. 7 – Whenever the General Convention, pursuant to Article X(c) of the Constitution, shall authorize alternative liturgies to one or more liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer or additional liturgies to those in the Book of Common Prayer, the enabling Resolution shall specify the precise texts thereof, and the terms and conditions under which such liturgies may be used.

The revision of Article X passed its first reading (resolution 2018-A066). Only if and when the 2021 General Convention concurs to a revised Article X will the alternatives to the liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Eucharist in Enriching our Worship, as well as the rites for same sex-marriage, have canonical authority.

Strangely, the new section 7 of Canon II.3 was not passed by the convention. Perhaps someone realized that the section would be invalid without the corresponding change to the Constitution’s Article X, which will not go into force unless the next convention concurs and amends the Constitution.

Why this all matters is that the constitutional path for a book of alternative services (or at least authorized alternative rites to those contained in the 1979 prayer book) is underway. And while Resolution A068, as amended by the bishops and passed by the convention, used the language of “the ongoing work of liturgical and Prayer Book revision,” the rest of the resolution makes clear that the convention ensured the continued use 1979 prayer book (see the fourth and fifth resolved clauses).

At least for now, a revision of the 1979 prayer book is not occurring.



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